Saturday, May 5, 2007

State v. Rush (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed April 27, 2007--Opinion by Judge Deborah S. Eyler.

In its murder prosecution against Rush, the State has appealed a pre-trial ruling suppressing from evidence inculpatory statements Rush gave to the police.

The issues before the court at the suppression hearing were whether Rush's statements were obtained in violation of Miranda and whether her statements had been obtained voluntarily. The circuit court ruled that Rush's statements had been obtained in violation of Miranda and would be suppressed on that ground. Further, the court made plain that it was granting the suppression motion on the Miranda violation ground only and was not granting it on the alternative involuntariness ground.

The issue stems from a murder investigation for which Rush was brought in to the police station and questioned. Subsequent to some light background conversation on the investigation, the detective proceeded to advise Rush of her rights using a standard Advice of Rights Form ("Form"), to which he made a handwritten alteration. The form with the alteration stated, in relevant part:
If you want a lawyer, but cannot afford one, a lawyer will be provided to you @ some time at no cost.

The bolded portion is the handwritten addition made by the detective. Rush read the form and, when the detective asked Rush whether it all made sense, she replied in the affirmative. He then asked several questions to verify that she understood the stated advisements and had her initial next to the four answers on the form, confirming:

  1. that she understood the rights that had been read to her;
  2. that she wanted to make a statement at that time without a lawyer;
  3. that she had not been offered any kind of reward or benefit nor had she been threatened in any way in order to get her to make a statement; and
  4. that she was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Prior to Rush signing the form, she asked " . . . do I need a lawyer or somethin' or is it, am I just in here for . . . questioning?" The detective responded, ". . . if you decide at that, any point in time during our questioning that you feel that that'd be the best for you, then you let me know that. Okay?" Ultimately, Rush signed and noted her level of education below her signature.

At the suppression hearing, the detective explained that handwriting the words "@ some time" is his usual practice because "[a lawyer] is not going to magically appear. It's going to take a little time for a lawyer to be provided to her for a representation. . ." Rush testified that she did not remember being advised of her rights but did remember being told that a lawyer would be appointed for her "after [she] would go to jail." She then acknowledged, however, that that was said to her only after the interrogation had concluded.

On review, the Court assessed the advisements given to Rush in their totality. By means of Advisement 2, "You have the right to talk to a lawyer before you are asked any questions and to have a lawyer with you while you are being questioned," Rush was told orally and in writing that she had the right to talk to a lawyer. She was then informed, by means of Advisement 3, also orally and in writing, that if she could not afford a lawyer, one would be provided for her at some time, at no cost. Under Eagan and Prysock, the added language did not violate Miranda because the warnings, as given, told Rush in straightforward language that she had a right to talk to a lawyer before being questioned and to have a lawyer present during questioning. Advisement 3, as altered by the words "at some time," was not inconsistent with the rights communicated in Advisement 2. Its message, stated separately from Advisement 2 because its topic was not the same, was that, if Rush decided that she wanted a lawyer, i.e., to exercise the right to a lawyer communicated in Advisement 2, but she did not have the resources to pay for a lawyer, she would be given a lawyer at no cost and at some time. Read objectively, this message did not tell Rush that, if she indeed asked for a lawyer right then, she nevertheless would have to undergo questioning without a lawyer until her lawyer arrived "at some time."

Rush argues that the detective actually asked her a few questions before advising her of her rights and, by doing so, created the impression that the interrogation had begun and the advice-of-rights had no bearing on Rush's ability to stop the interrogation. The Court reasoned that the questions posed prior to advising Rush of her rights were meant to orient her and to determine whether she had any first-hand familiarity with the Miranda warnings before he gave them to her. Further, the remarks made by Rush while the Miranda warnings were being given, and subsequently during the interview, evidence no confusion about her right to counsel and show that she was willing to speak to the police at the outset of the interview and as it progressed. Rush affirmatively stated she was willing to speak with police without a lawyer; and in doing so, she said nothing to suggest that she thought she had no choice in the matter. Rush even inquired whether she "needed" a lawyer, which prompted the detective to advise her that it was her decision and that she could make that decision at any time and questioning would cease.

Based on the stated reasoning, this Court held the circuit court erred in holding that Rush was not advised of her rights in accordance with Miranda and in granting her motion to suppress her statements from evidence on that ground.

With this holding, ordinarily the Court's inquiry would end. However, Rush asked they address the alternative voluntariness and argues that her statements were induced by improper promises and threats and, therefore, were involuntary and subject to suppression even if Miranda were complied with. As opposed to the State, a criminal defendant has no right to immediately appeal a circuit court's decision not to suppress evidence and has no right to pursue a cross-appeal in a State's appeal under CJ section 12-302(c)(3). The criminal defendant, unlike the State, is not without remedy if inculpatory evidence is erroneously admitted at trial, as he may raise the error on appeal after a final judgment of conviction. The legislature created the right of immediate appeal for the State in order to equalize the opportunities the parties have in criminal cases for meaningful correction of erroneous pretrial evidentiary rulings, made on constitutional grounds. The objective was to provide a vehicle to challenge a pre-trial ruling excluding critical evidence so that, if the ruling were erroneous, the error could be corrected before jeopardy would attach. Without such a right of immediate appeal, the State has no meaningful opportunity for error correction, because under double jeopardy principles and the developed case law on verdicts of acquittal, the State cannot appeal from a final judgment in favor of the defendant. The Court reasoned, however, that as the fields have been leveled, it would amount to an enourmous waste of judicial time and resources, and contrary to policies favoring judicial economy, to delay fully ruling on the correctness of a pre-trial suppression ruling when an immediate appeal has been taken.

To be voluntary, a confession must be "freely and voluntarily made at a time when [the defendant] knew and understood what he was saying." Similarly, in order to pass federal and Maryland constitutional muster, a confession must be voluntary, knowing and intelligent. The burden falls on the State to show "affirmatively that the inculpatory statement was freely and voluntarily made." Ordinarily, voluntariness is determined based on a totality of the circumstances test. When a confession is preceded or accompanied by threats or a promise of advantage, however, those factors are transcendant and decisive, and the confession will be deemed involuntary unless the State can establish that such threats or promises in no way induced the statement (the "Hillard" test). The first prong of Hillard is objective -- whether the police or State agent made a threat, promise or inducement, i.e., that is not, as a matter of routine, done for all suspects. Mere exhortations to tell the truth and appeals to a suspect's inner conscience has been held not to be improper. Further, the suspect's subjective belief that he will be advantaged in some way by confessing is irrelevant. The second prong of Hillard triggers a causation analysis to determine whether there was a nexus between the promise or inducement and the accused's confession.

Rush maintains the detective made improper promises during her interrogation that caused her will to be overborne, resulting in her making incriminating statements -- he promised "to help her if she told him the truth." The essential questions to answer are: (1) whether, to a reasonable person in Rush's circumstances, any of the detective's statements urging her to tell the truth were coupled with a promise, express or implied, that there would be a special benefit in doing so; and (2) if so, whether any such improper promise caused her to make an incriminating statement. The Court found that, because the interrogation was recorded, there was no factual dispute about what was said.

The Court agreed with Rush that several of the detective's comments were implied inducements in which he suggested that it would be advantageous to Rush, in terms of the charges she was facing, to speak out and reveal all she knew about the events leading up to the murder. He made two references that strongly implied a special benefit from speaking: 1) that there could be "salvation" for Rush if she told the truth, but, if not, she would remain in "major trouble"; and 2) that if Rush were to tell him "exactly what happened and why it happened," "we can resolve this and get it over with. . . ." These comments went beyond mere pleas to honesty and good conscience. Rather, they conveyed the message that a full statement would get the detective's assistance in making the first degree murder warrant go away so she would not have to "take the ride, take the charge," because the charge would be "resolved." A reasonable person in Rush's circumstances -- age 20 and having a 9th grade education - was an improper inducement. Accordingly, the Court affirms the order of the circuit court suppressing Rush's statements from evidence, in part, and vacates in part.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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